In today’s time-poor society, numeric film ratings from sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDb have become the go-to guide for determining a movie’s worth. But should we trust them?

A review from a trusted film critic can influence a moviegoer’s decision on what to see. Movie review aggregator sites save you the reading part, collating reviews from contributing critics and users and assigning films a rating out of 10 or 100. But like the scores they award, the reliability of these online aggregators can be just as contentious.

Take the recent turkey Gotti, starring John Travolta as the eponymous mobster and directed by Kevin Connolly (aka ‘E’ from Entourage). It currently rates 0% on the Rotten Tomatoes’ ‘Tomatometer’ (the critics’ aggregate) based on 38 reviews, compared with a 55% Audience Score from 7,508 users – not bad for a box office bomb that nobody went to see. Such a discrepancy has raised suspicions of score tampering by marketing bots.

To better understand the whole scoring system – without all the boring algorithmic guff – let’s take a look at how the three most popular review aggregators arrive at their ratings.

Rotten Tomatoes gives a ‘Fresh’ rating to films that score 60% and above (calculated from critics’ reviews) and a ‘Rotten’ splat to those that fall under. An accompanying Audience Score from registered users is determined similarly.

Metacritic, which collates a smaller number of critics’ reviews, offers a ‘Metascore’ percentage based on the number of critic reviews, and a user score out of 10. Moreover, unlike Rotten Tomatoes, the nuances of a critic’s review also determines the Metascore, not just a star rating out of five.

IMDb, on the other hand, is user driven. Registered members submit ratings for any movie and the individual scores are calculated into a single rating, which is a weighted average, not a mathematical one. Take a look at the site’s 250 top rated movies of all time and you’ll find The Shawshank Redemption sitting at number one above The Godfather, and The Dark Knight at number four. WTF?

Take a moment to search Rotten Tomatoes and/or Metacritic for the consensus on a movie and you’re likely to discover a discrepancy between the opinions of the contributing critics and those of the paying public (see table below).

Fresh or Rotten?

 Rotten Tomatoes CriticRotten Tomatoes AudienceMetacritic CriticMetacritic UserIMDb User
Batman v Superman:Dawn of Justice0.270.63447.06.6
Star Wars:The Last Jedi0.910.46854.57.3
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom0.510.56515.76.6
The Godfather0.980.981009.29.2

It’s all dependent on the particular film of course, and the more fan-centric the movie (Star Wars, Marvel, DC), the more lopsided the scores can be – it’s interesting to note that while critics loved The Last Jedi, Star Wars fans didn’t.

The disparity in opinion between critics and audiences is as old as Hollywood itself. Today’s fervent pop culture fans will rant and condemn critics for knowing nothing just because they dissed the latest superhero blockbuster, but sometimes they can be blinded by their devotion. This very writer was once called a “dickhead” for giving Batman v Superman two and a half stars in an advance review, only to be vindicated when the movie opened to general disappointment.

Critics don’t set out to deliberately give a film a bad review. They evaluate it on merits like direction, performances, screenplay, editing, cinematography, etc, and then rate it as a whole. And if something isn’t up to scratch, it will be reflected in the review.

The average cinemagoer is likely to be more forgiving – they just want to be transported, entertained and eat popcorn for a couple of hours, and are satisfied if they got their money’s worth (movie tickets aren’t cheap these days).

Reliable or otherwise, scores from review aggregators have become an important marketing tool for studios – a Rotten Tomatoes “Certified Fresh” logo will now often replace the traditional critics’ quote on a poster or DVD sleeve.

These sites do have their advantages and are certainly convenient, but whether a movie is good or bad ultimately comes down to personal taste, not a percentage or a mark out of 10.